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Stress: A Cause of Cancer?

There’s no escaping it: stress is a part of our lives. How we handle that stress can have an impact on our health. Every day, we hear more and more about the harm it may cause our minds and bodies,- from heart disease to anxiety attacks. Now researchers are trying to determine if stress is also a factor in who will develop cancer.

Currently, there is no evidence that stress is a direct cause of cancer. But evidence is accumulating that there is some link between stress and developing certain kinds of cancer, as well as how the disease progresses.

Hundreds of studies have measured how stress impacts our immune systems and fights disease. At Ohio State University, researcher Dr. Ron Glaser, Ph.D., found that students under pressure had slower-healing wounds and took longer to produce immune system cells that kill invading organisms. Renowned researcher Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D., who has spent 20 years examining the effects of stress on the body, found that stress-reduction techniques could actually help reverse heart disease. And Dr. Barry Spiegel, M.D., a leader in the field of psychosomatic medicine, found that metastatic breast cancer patients lived longer when they participated in support groups.

Other studies have gone as far as to show those women who experienced traumatic life events or losses in previous years had significantly higher rates of breast cancer.

Still, the National Cancer Institute reports, “Although studies have shown that stress factors, such as death of a spouse, social isolation, and medical school examinations, alter the way the immune system functions, they have not provided scientific evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between these immune system changes and the development of cancer.”

Nonetheless, some medical experts say therein lies the link between cancer and stress — if stress decreases the body’s ability to fight disease, it loses the ability to kill cancer cells.

Every day, our bodies are exposed to cancer-causing agents in the air, food and water we’re exposed to. Typically, our immune system recognizes those abnormal cells and kills them before they produce a tumor. There are three important things that can happen to prevent cancer from developing — the immune system can prevent the agents from invading in the first place, DNA can repair the abnormal cells or killer T-cells can kill off cancer cells.

Research has shown that stress can lower the body’s ability to do each of those things, according to Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Does that mean there’s a direct link between stress and the risk of developing cancer? Not necessarily, Cohen said.

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Part of the reason stress may be linked to cancer, he said, is simply that when people are under pressure they make poor choices — they begin smoking, stop exercising, start eating unhealthy foods — all factors that are also linked to cancer.

Even if that’s not the case, “there are a lot of things that have to happen for cancer to develop. I think it’s fair to say that stress could be one of the many components in lowering immune systems and therefore making us more susceptible to cancer and a faster progression of the disease. But stress might just be one piece of the puzzle — what percentage is the question. I fall back on the fact that regardless of what percentage it might be, it’s a percentage we’re more in control of. We can’t control genetics, but we can change how we respond to stress,” he said, adding that it’s not necessarily the stress itself as much as the way people handle stress that may be linked to disease.

Stress: A Cause of Cancer?

Lisa Hurt Kozarovich

APA Reference
Kozarovich, L. (2020). Stress: A Cause of Cancer?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.